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Telepresence technology gets vendor push despite hazy ROI

Even as some experts remain skeptical about the potential return on investment for enterprise video and telepresence, vendors at Interop are rushing to introduce products that make it more reliable, more useful and less expensive.

Vendors are scrambling to introduce supporting technologies for telepresence and video conferencing deployments,...

even as businesses struggle to find the return on investment opportunities the technology provides.

At this week's Interop New York conference, several vendors were clearly targeting the emerging market with new product releases. Vidyo announced VydoRoom HD-100, a low-budget ($2,995), room-based, high-definition video conferencing system. Ipanema Technologies added "Intelligent Acceleration," which does real-time analysis of network traffic, to its line of WAN optimization appliances to help assure video is delivered.

"There is clearly a lot of interest [in video], and in some sense Cisco has staked out the territory, with their TelePresence offering a high umbrella. And a lot of people are able to scramble underneath that," said Don van Doren, principal and founder of UniComm Consulting. "There is a lot of momentum that says video is going to become a crucial part of [enterprise communications]."

Earlier this year, market research firm Frost & Sullivan predicted that the telepresence market would reach $1.4 billion by 2013 from $145 million in 2007.

But van Doren said he is skeptical of what value video really brings to the table.

"I've been a skeptic of video for 20 years, ever since PictureTel," he said. "Where does it really add value? Are talking heads helpful?"

While those questions remain unanswered for many, vendors have been happy to try and fill the technical holes needed to make video work.

Polycom, which has a rich legacy of video and IP telephony solutions, is trying to leverage that heritage to support some of telepresence's trickier problems, according to Derrick Fitzgerald, senior product marketing manager for the company.

Polycom announced the Distributed Media Application (DMA) 7000, which centrally routes and manages video calls so that if one video bridge number is down, for example, the calls are seamlessly transferred to another bridge without user intervention.

"It knows how many bridges are out in the network, how many ports are being used. It can know what network outages are going on," Fitzgerald said. "We're really looking for how we could simplify things for both the users … and the IT folks who are asked to manage the video application."

As companies like Polycom tackle the deeper infrastructure problems and try to simplify deployments, companies are beginning to take a second look at where video can fit into their communications strategy. The success of video might depend as much on culture as it does on the latest algorithms.

"I think the unknown factor is the YouTube generation and, frankly, the way a lot of mainstream businesses have gravitated toward YouTube and using video effectively," van Doren said. "The way young people are changing their style of communications, brought on by YouTube, Facebook and Web 2.0 concepts, might change the expectations of how things are done."

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